Build a House in the Sky

A local couple makes childhood dreams come true.

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In the children’s book “The Magic Treehouse,” Mary Pope Osborne depicts a family as they venture through far-off places in their imaginations. In the real world, a Killen, Alabama couple has created their own version of an enchanting treehouse through the wonders of imagination, teamwork and some blood, sweat, and tears.

Just ten miles from the hustle and bustle of Florence, there’s a two-hundred-acre plot turned into a living masterpiece. From the rolling hills and deep forests to the picturesque landscape, the property is a scene of natural wonder. The Matthews family—three generations and ten large dogs—inhabits the colossal, history-rich estate. The Union Army marched through the area and camped on the nearby land during the American Civil War. In fact, the two-hundred-year-old log cabin the family lives in is a refurnished pumping station and general store relocated from Russellville, Alabama.

A one-hundred-foot-tall and one-hundred-year-old beech tree holds the family’s treehouse, and it’s a short hike from their cabin; this treehouse is every child’s dream come true. Twenty-five feet in the air, secured by lock and key to thwart the recent influx of breakins, is the hand built masterpiece. There’s a wrap around deck, a loft big enough for a queen sized mattress, a working cast iron stove and a den filled with family heirlooms and photographs. And the Matthews family will pump water to the treehouse.

Robin Matthews is the brain behind the operation. He designed and built the entire structure with the much needed help from his wife Jennifer. Originally going to college for business, Robin said he would never have thought that he would have done something like this. He explained, “I always grew up outside and it was my first love, but I went to school for business to be able to run my company.” He’s the owner of Deadwood Furniture where he builds custom furniture from refurbished wood to sell at local festivals such as Florence’s First Fridays. He also designs home landscapes, such as swimming pools and lawns, for Backyard Solutions.

The Matthews Family

Robin and Jennifer Matthews proudly display their treehouse.

The treehouse itself was born out of inspiration from the hit television show Treehouse Masters on Animal Planet. “I was watching the show one day and it just came to me. My father had built my two brothers and me a small treehouse when we were younger to play in and I saw the tree and I wanted to build something for the family to enjoy. Kind of full circle,” Robin said. “Design-wise I was really inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright because he was really a trailblazer for modern architecture and his house is part of the history of Florence so it is great to be able to use local inspiration.”

In the early days of construction, Matthews knew the treehouse, just like his childhood home, should be made of refurbished wood, not only to help the environment but also to give the treehouse a more connected feel to the family. “Most of the wood was driftwood found in and around the Tennessee River that I cleaned up and cut with my personal sawmill. It adds up to be about three or four trees worth of wood,” he pointed out.

With his experience in carpentry, Matthews worked to build the treehouse to top-notch quality while also being as cost-efficient as possible. “We built it all ourselves and we had our own sawmill so it was mostly just money for the support beams and equipment we didn’t have and had to rent. All in all, it was only about $5000 from start to finish.”  This is an astonishing feat as most treehouses on the show that gave Matthews his inspiration average anywhere from $80,000 to $200,000!

And get this; they built the entire thing in only six months. Yes, only six months which in comparison to other treehouses of this capacity took as much as two years to complete.

The treehouse sits in the split of a large beech tree seemingly crafted for such a project.  “The tree was split at such an angle that it was dividing in half from the gravitational pull on the branches so with the wrap-around design of the house, the treehouse pulled the split limbs back together completely saving the tree,” Matthews explained.

Matthews credits the treehouse to the love and support from his wife, Jennifer.  “As much work as I put in she was there cheering me on and doing her fair share of the load,” he praised.  “I was the one who handled the logistics. I ordered the harnesses when we were hanging the beams, and I’m the one who kept the treehouse from being at the top of the tree. The safety monitor you could say,” Jennifer laughed.

The couple saw the process through from start to finish. “I was there when you saw the tree. I watched as you designed it in your head. I was there when you nailed the first nail, I personally screwed in all of the deck screws, and I was there when it was finished, so it’s just as much my project as yours,” Jennifer added.

In regards to the design, Robin explained, “There were no formal drawings or blueprints laid out. We sketched a simple picture of what we wanted it to look like but it really all just came together as we did it.  Sometimes you just have to do something for all the pieces to really fit together and work.” It is honestly breathtaking at how perfectly symmetrical the lines are crafted with no such dimensions or plans to follow.

The house is set on a hexagonal platform with tilted hexagon walls shaping the home itself. “I wanted to angle the walls to allow for a cozier feel and open loft which would not be possible if the walls stood vertically.  It would just feel like a box or a ‘typical’ treehouse and we are far from typical,” Robin explained as Jennifer chimed in. “I thought it was crazy dreaming up those tilted walls but he did and we did it.”

The Matthews Family's Cast Iron Stove

The Matthews Family’s Cast Iron Stove

The treehouse is more than just a house. It’s a home. The family celebrated the ceremonial launching of the treehouse’s life spending the night in the loft. “It got really cold and the cast iron stove just ended up smoking us out because we had not finished prepping it to work properly,” Jennifer regarded. “It is still a work in progress. I think it will always be a work in progress because something can always be improved.” The work never ends for the couple as they continue to make their dream come true with wood furniture being crafted to shape the room into a more livable state.

The community has already grown to love the treehouse with it becoming a popular attraction for Instagram photos as people hike the land. When asked the plans for the finished treehouse Matthews replied, “We considered renting it out as like a tourist attraction, maybe a ‘woodsy’ bed and breakfast, but we as a family decided to just keep it as something special for us.  Something for our kids to enjoy and grow to love just as much as we do.”

That is what sets this family apart from others. Not only did they build a treehouse by hand, but the connection to their family is very evident in the pride the entire family takes in the project.  Even all ten dogs ran and jumped in excitement over the treehouse as if they were eager to show off their prized possession.

Matthews already has plans for the treehouse with the addition of a zip-line from the deck of the house to a connecting tree and a possible revamp of the original walkup with less steep stairs creating an easier climb.  He also has plans to build another complete house on the opposite side of the creek with a bridge connecting the two. When asked how he would be able to top the original he laughed, “I would like to make it two stories or even more kid friendly as this one is really an ‘adult’ treehouse.  I would also like to see how high we could actually go with a house. We are twenty-five feet in the air right now, but we could be at fifty.”  Who knows?  Soon, the Matthews could be a modern day Swiss Family Robinson.

The treehouse is a symbolic representation of the power of teamwork and camaraderie—husband and wife joining forces to add to their own version of the American Dream. The treehouse represents the Matthews family’s core values: unity and family.